Monday, December 16, 2019

Review: Weapons of the Weak

[James C. Scott. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985.]

A classic from a political scientist of anarchist proclivities doing what amounts to anthropology and studying the fine-grained class relations in a peasant village in Malaysia in the late '70s and early '80s, in the context of the capitalist re-organization of agriculture often referred to as the 'green revolution'. It is a classic because it is generally credited as the entrypoint into academic discourse for the idea of "everyday resistance" (though you can certainly find related ideas, if not always those words, in some anarchist, left communist, and autonomist sources, and perhaps elsewhere, from before this point). I can't comment on how this stacks up in the context of its disciplines, but my sense from its reputation is that it checks the necessary boxes to count as a classic in that regard too.

Even setting aside its political significance, I found it fascinating just in terms of its detailed attention to people's lives and interactions on an everyday level – which is maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but even when it is set in a context completely unlike the one I live in or any that I'm likely to ever write about, it certainly is mine. A lot of the detail of this book is really beyond what I need it for, and before I started reading it I considered doing something I almost never do, which is to only read it partially. But I was just too interested in this aspect of it to do that.

And of course its argument is pretty politically important, I think: There is this traditional understanding of peasants as politically passive the vast majority of the time – which even on the left has often been interpreted as active buy-in to hegemony – and then given to very, very occasional paroxysms of collective violence against their oppressors that almost never results in any kind of victory. Scott argues that this conclusion, and the everyday life-level observations from many which support it, are at fault because they only observe what peasants do when they are directly interacting with people who have power over them. He, in contrast, pays attention to that and also to what they have to say and do in other situations. From that, it's clear that they do not buy into the ideology of their oppressors, and comply visibly because they have no other choice. But he skillfully identifies the many different ways that they are engaged in a constant, discreet, ostensibly individual but sufficiently widespread and coordinated to be at some level collective struggle using the 'weapons of the weak' signalled in the title – the everyday skirmishes about work, food, land, taxes, and respect waged via "foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so on" (xvi).

Part of this is about little acts that take back or block the expropriation of time, money, food, and so on in small ways. But it is also inevitably a struggle over meaning – conversations in coffee shops and on doorsteps, and interactions that aren't openly conflictual but that shape what gets seen as right and wrong. It is the poorer peasants mobilizing the moral framework they share with those who have power over them to their own advantage. And he argues that class struggle inevitably, and not just in peasant contexts, starts with these kinds of mostly invisible acts done at the level of everyday life where ordinary people do what they can to intervene in situations where they are exploited and oppressed – not necessarily with any grand political vision but just to carve out a bit more space, to retain a bit more dignity, to hold on to a little bit more of the resources we all need to live life.

Scholars and revolutionaries alike have often either ignored this scale of struggle or, sometimes more recently, romanticized it in unhelpful ways. Scott is clear that everyday resistance is just what people do to survive. Recognizing it and taking it seriously and giving respect to what people are already doing to improve their own lives are essential for making whatever collective and overtly political projects you might wish to build stronger, more just, and more effective.

Anyway. A book that is super important politically, and that despite being in some ways an old-school scholarly monograph is actually very entertaining and readable.

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